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May 6, 2005

House of Wax is no classic, but it serves up the scares

Expectations could not be much lower for Jaume Serra's House of Wax, a remake—in name only—of the 1953 cult piece starring Vincent Price. Any description of this new incarnation using key phrases including "Paris Hilton," "Chad Michael Murray," "teen slasher," and "utter piece of shit" should shout out to any mildly competent film viewer: "STAY HOME!"

So, dear readers, it is with great surprise that I find myself recommending this film to you. How much did I love it? I am planning to pay actual, hard-earned money to see it again with friends. I think about it as I fall asleep at night. I refer to it in conversation. Is it really that good? Absolutely not. It is that bad.

There are only two types of people who won't enjoy this utter piece of shit teen slasher starring Paris Hilton and Chad Michael Murray: those who were not long ago desensitized to violence of any kind and those who have no sense of humor. Members of both groups are hereby excused from the rest of this review.

The genius of House of Wax is that all the elements that usually don't work in horror movies have been stripped away but not replaced. There is next to no attempt to develop the characters, follow a course of believable events, resolve the plot, or express some message. And let's be honest: If these things were attempted in any serious way, the filmmakers would have failed miserably and I'd be shorted two hours of my time. What is left over is everything we actually go to horror movies to see. House of Wax is not only the most violent movie I have ever seen, but it is also one of the most cleverly violent.

Whichever Hollywood machine churned out this screenplay has an excellent sense of everything perverse that will keep you up at night. We see super-glued lips, swiftly snipped Achilles tendons, and harshly abbreviated fingers. I have had trouble sleeping since seeing this movie because my lips, Achilles tendons, and fingertips have all physically hurt. I know that isn't for everyone. But at some point you should just let the needle on your evil-o-meter pass from "probably going to hell" to "have a spot reserved next to Judas" and admit that you enjoy every of second of this stuff. As a pacifist who worries a lot about violence in the media, I loved it. Loved it, even though it meant that most characters, including poor what's-her-face, played by Paris Hilton (sniff), had to die.

Allow me to deal with the celebutante for a moment. The girl's no fresh talent. She is famous for being famous, not for her acting abilities. But, damn it all, she is a good sport. Among her vast array of enemies, who include, in all likelihood, you, there seems to be a divide. There is a big difference between not thinking a joke is funny and not getting it in the first place. You fall into the first category if you are indifferent to Paris, find her annoying, or simply aren't entertained. You fall into the second if you make fun of her viciously for the very things she laughs at in herself and has built a career on. I'm no defender of her style. She was indeed a bland addition to the kinetic energy of this movie. But I do think she and her publicist are geniuses.

That being said, let's cover the plot. A bunch of teenagers are heading to a sports game when they end up in a creepy forest and stumble upon a quiet town with an abandoned wax museum and then slowly get picked off. Whew, enough of that.

The visuals that hold up this stupid plot are astounding. Consider an enormous building made entirely of wax catching fire and melting as the characters fight for survival inside. It is simply beautiful. Picture a guy who stumbles upon his now wax-encased missing friend and, while attempting to remove the wax, begins to remove the skin. The wax-encased friend's eyes dart desperately as the rest of his body remains still. Tears form. It is simply terrible, in a beautiful sort of way. Some people would classify this as mindless, gratuitous violence, but mindless is one thing this violence is not. It is the stuff of big-budget nightmares that happen to feature Paris Hilton running around in her underwear. So I guess that averages out to a lukewarm dream.

Some of the characters even behave the way you might in a nightmare. They make decently intelligent decisions. Yes, many of them do go wandering about in the night alone to investigate that creepy noise, but others, most notably so-and-so, played by Chad Michael Murray, have a knack for survival that makes for a pleasant change of pace. And even though a few of the characters are able to continue aerobic activities despite having arrows through the heart or knives in the thigh, most behave according to ordinary laws of survival, dying when they plausibly should. These elements make the movie more entertaining, as there seem to be some rules to the game, even if they bear little resemblance to those in reality.

This movie made people scream. It made people curl up in little balls and cover their eyes. It made at least one person yell, "How can I ever be a doctor?" upon becoming better familiarized with the process of injecting a syringe. But, more importantly, it had everyone buzzing about it long after. Don't expect any deep meaning. Ed Gonzalez, pretentious film critic for Slant Magazine, desperately grappled for one. He writes of one scene set in an old movie theater full of wax sculptures: "The filmmakers encourage audiences to critique their roles as passive spectators." That's a stretch. However, this film will get to you. It will make you writhe and smile at the same time. And it will make your Achilles tendons hurt like hell.